Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fathers and Sons

My mother has been sending newspaper clippings to The Boy about Tai Shan, the National Zoo's panda cub also known as Butterstick. So The Boy was pretty eager to see Tai Shan in person on his most recent visit. Tai Shan is an active youngster. He was climbing a tree when we first stopped by to see him.

The panda yard is divide by a wall. Tai Shan was on one side with one parent and the other parent was on the other side of the wall. It just seemed obvious to me that Tai Shan was being kept with his mother, but The Boy insisted that Tai Shan was playing with his dad.

I love the boy.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Seven Samurai

It’s a three and a half hour movie about rice. The villagers have rice. The bandits want the rice. The villagers find seven samurai and pay them with rice to keep the bandits from stealing their rice. (It's a great movie. I highly recommend it.)

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Maryland Avenue Project

Since starting this blog, I’ve been receiving press releases in my e-mail from now three different organizations. I assume that these are being sent to me in hopes that I will write about the releases. Perhaps someone has been spreading advice that to create buzz about your organization you should court bloggers to write about you.

The Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University has been sending me releases about upcoming shows. I haven’t been to any performances at the Lisner, much less blogged about any, but I won’t rule out doing either of those. I also have been receiving releases from DC Vote, an organization I’ve had some involvement with and whose mission I support. I haven’t blogged about them either, but I probably will in the future. Most recently, I’ve begun to receive press releases from the Institute for Religion and Democracy. If IRD is hoping that I’ll blog about them then they are about to get their wish, but they aren’t going to like what I have to say.

In their own words, IRD works “to reform the social and political witness of the American churches, while also promoting democracy and religious freedom at home and abroad.” I’m all for second part of that statement, at least on the face of it, but it is the first part that I have a problem with. IRD has targeted for what they call reform the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

IRD’s stated goal is reform of mainline churches. The policies of the mainline churches are the business of their members and their members alone. What really bothers me about IRD is the presence of outsiders on its board of directors and its use of outside money. At least six of the seventeen board directors are not members of the denominations targeted by IRD. The Rev. Richard J. Neuhaus, Michael Novak, Dr. J. Budziszewski, George Weigel, Mary Ellen Bork, and Dr. Robert P. George are all Roman Catholic, but IRD is not trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Its efforts are focused on three protestant denominations plus the National Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches. The Roman Catholic Church isn’t a member of either NCC or WCC.

Others have written about IRD, most notably Leon Howell who authored United Methodism@RISK, A Wake Up Call. Howell documented the network of groups working to drastically change the United Methodist Church. Most of these are groups composed of members of the church. While I disagree with their agenda, I can’t deny that as members of the United Methodist Church, they have every right to pursue it. IRD has connected the money of the political right with the right-wing activists in the denominations it has targeted in order to silence the progressive social advocacy of the mainline denominations.

From Howell’s book, IRD’s agenda is to influence the governing bodies of the mainline denominations to oppose feminism, gay rights, abortion, environmentalism, hate crimes legislation, and the social safety net. IRD also supports the war on terror and the war in Iraq. IRD’s tactics include: sample resolutions to be introduced at annual conferences and General Conference; recruiting and training delegates for annual conferences and General Conference; recruiting and training candidates to run for church leadership positions; provoking church members to bringing charges against clergy on accusations; and using press releases to spread misinformation and smear church leaders.

Howell also details the financial connections between IRD and the philanthropists and foundations that typically fund right-wing secular causes. IRD has received millions of dollars from Richard Mellon Scaife, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, and the Fieldstead Foundation.

As it happens, the three denominations targeted by IRD, and the National Council of Churches, have their public policy and advocacy offices in either 100 or 110 Maryland Avenue Northeast in Washington, D.C. One hundred Maryland Avenue is the United Methodist Building and 110 Maryland Avenue next door is additional real estate also owned by the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, the public witness and advocacy agency of the United Methodist Church. In fact, over 40 denominations have their offices in those two buildings. Just like Tom Delay had his K Street Project to put his loyal associates in positions at lobbying firms located mostly on K Street, IRD appears to be conducting a Maryland Avenue project for the right to neutralize the support for a progressive public policy agenda by mainline churches. Not satisfied to have the support of evangelicals and fundamentalists, the right wants to shut down any opposition on its agenda from the religious mainstream.

So, IRD, thanks for the press releases. Keep them coming. I want to keep tabs on what you’re trying to do to my church.

So This is How Liberty Dies

The two women of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, have both recently spoken out about threats to judges, which in turn threaten the independence of the judiciary.

In a March 9 speech reported by National Public Radio, but ignored by most other major media, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor defended the necessity of an independent judiciary to protect freedoms and prevent tyranny. She named no names, but quoted both Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and criticized their comments for promoting retaliation against individual judges and the federal judiciary as a whole for rulings on particular cases. Delay had criticized the courts for decisions on abortion, prayer and the Terry Schiavo case. Of the Schiavo ruling, DeLay said: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior" and he later called for the impeachment of the judges involved. Cornyn had made a statement that there may be a connection between violence against judges and the decisions they make after a Georgia judge was murdered in the courtroom and the family of a federal judge in Illinois was murdered in her home.

O'Connor noted recent suggestions for retaliating against the courts such as the massive impeachment of judges, stripping the courts of jurisdiction and cutting judicial budgets. O’Connor asserted that judicial independence relies upon an environment in which judges and justices won't be subject to retaliation for their rulings.

A March 16 article in Legal Times, reported on a February speech by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Justice Ginsburg said she and Sandra Day O'Connor were the targets of an Internet death threat in 2005 because of their citation of foreign law and court rulings in Supreme Court decisions. In her speech, Ginsburg suggested the threat was prompted by bills introduced by Republicans in Congress that would prohibit federal courts from referring to foreign laws or rulings in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Just Like Pathology is the Study of Paths

It makes me crazy how people who should know better (for examples look here, here, and here) misuse the word methodology when they just mean method. The suffix -ology refers to the study or science of something. Methodology is the study of methods and should not be used to describe the method used to study a thing or phenomenon.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Church leads effort for fairness in congressional representation

March 8, 2006

By Mark Schoeff Jr.*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - For many years, Foundry United Methodist Church has helped lead an effort to establish a voting representative in Congress for District of Columbia citizens.

Now there's something tangible to rally around: a bill that is being considered this spring on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., has reintroduced the D.C. Fairness in Representation Act, which would give the district a fully enfranchised House of Representatives member and would temporarily add a House member to the Utah delegation.

The bill would increase the size of the House from 435 to 437 until the 2010 census, when congressional districts would be reapportioned back to 435 for the 2012 election. Currently, the District of Columbia is represented in the House by a nonvoting member.

Advocates for the measure are pushing for hearings in the House Government Reform Committee, which Davis chairs, and in the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

If the bill gains traction in Congress, it will mark a milestone for Foundry's efforts on the issue. Foundry was instrumental in getting a D.C. voting resolution revised and readopted at the 2000 United Methodist General Conference. In the resolution, the denomination's top legislative assembly called on the president and Congress "to take action to provide congressional representation to the citizens of Washington D.C. by whatever means they should find suitable and appropriate."

The resolution called on all U.S. United Methodist congregations and church members to support the citizens of Washington and request that their "elected representatives in Congress . demand democratic rights for the District of Columbia."

The resolution also asks all communities of faith across the country to advocate for the effort so that "at last the citizens of the District of Columbia are provided with the same democratic rights available to all other Americans."

"You all have helped keep this issue alive, not only in our city and the Congress but also in the church," said Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the social action arm of the denomination. Winkler spoke Feb. 19 at a voting rights bill meeting at Foundry church.

So far, Foundry has been advocating the issue in principle, and the Davis bill now provides something to point to when building support in Congress, he noted.

"Now there is something specific you can ask them to do," said the Rev. Mark Schaefer, United Methodist chaplain at American University and former head of the Foundry Democracy Project. "We're hoping to energize the community of faith and tie it to the specific relief we have before us," he said.

'Strategic influence'

The church and society agency will urge United Methodists across the country to contact their representatives and senators, Winkler said. A sample letter will be sent in an Action Alert e-mail to 18,000 subscribers, and the board will include an appeal in its Faith and Action newsletter, which goes to 15,000 people.

If a member of Congress gets a couple of dozen calls on a bill that otherwise wasn't on the radar, it tends to get his or her attention, Winkler said. Even 300 phone calls to congressional offices over the course of a couple of months could make a difference if they're targeted at key politicians, he said.

"The way we look at it is strategic influence and pressure rather than trying to get 8 million United Methodists to arise at once, although I love that idea," Winkler said. "The key is to get enough members of Congress hearing from people."

Although opposition is sure to flare over any proposal to give the District two senators, which likely would be safe Democratic seats, overcoming detractors is not the biggest problem.
"The biggest challenge is interest, it's not opposition," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DCVote, who spoke at the Foundry event.

A spiritual matter

Winkler suggested presenting the voting issue as a spiritual imperative. He recommended that the issue become part of Sunday liturgies through litanies, statements in sermons and Scripture references.

"We need to figure out ways to go beyond Action Alerts . so that it's not just seen as a political matter," Winkler said. Enfranchisement "is in our Methodist DNA."

Winkler, who had joined other religious leaders in protesting the cuts to social programs under President Bush's budget plan, said a vote from a district congressional representative might have turned the tide against the budget proposal this year, which passed the House 216-214. "If Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.'s representative) had been a voting member of the House, we would have been only one vote away from defeating the 2006 budget, which cut many human needs programs."

Bipartisan support

Robert White, a spokesman for the House Government Reform Committee, said the bill has garnered nearly two dozen bipartisan cosponsors.

Davis, chairman of the committee, welcomes the United Methodist Church's efforts to build support for the measure because, like the church, he views a District of Columbia vote in the House as a matter of social justice.

"When you get people who believe in the bill on that level and can explain it to other members of Congress, that's helpful," he said.

White said the committee wants to hold a hearing on the bill soon. The House Judiciary Committee is not planning any action on the bill in the near future.

The Senate

Advocates for the district's voting rights said Senate seats will have to wait for another day. "We can't get the Senate at this moment through this bill," Zherka said. The House vote measure "is a creative, vote-neutral result. That's how you can get movement in a partisan atmosphere."

For now, the focus will remain on the House - and, for Foundry, on the religious underpinnings of the effort. The entire congregation plans to reach out to House members on the fairness in representation legislation.

"People of faith have historically led social justice movements, such as the abolitionist and civil rights movements," said Seth Chase, leader of the Foundry Democracy Project. "The faithful across America should continue their historical mission and lead the movement to grant all Americans representation in Congress."

*Schoeff is a freelance writer in the Washington D.C. area. He is also on staff at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank.

News media contact: Linda Green or Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hope and Faith

Hebrews 11:1-3
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear. (RSV)

I used to feel challenged in my faith by my belief in reason and evidence. The problem for my faith is that there is no evidence that God exists. To be sure, there is no evidence that God does not exist either. The result was that God seemed, not impossible, but unlikely. Yet I found that I could not do without God in my life.

My dictionary tells me that faith is belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. If we had evidence or proof that God exists and created us and the universe, then by definition, we wouldn’t have faith. Faith means believing despite the lack of evidence. Faith is emotional, not rational. Faith is based on hope, which is believing in something even when the evidence indicates that it is unlikely.

Geological evidence indicates that the earth is 4 and a half billion years old. Astronomical evidence indicates that the universe is billions of years older. Fossil and genetic evidence indicate that all life on earth comes from a distant common ancestry and that differing species, including humans, evolved over millions of years.

To be fair, it is consistent with a Bible-based faith to choose to believe in the biblical story of creation. However, if reason and evidence are to be applied in any aspects of life, then it only makes sense to apply them to every aspect, not just those that are not addressed in the Bible.

Would it affect your relationship with God, if you believed that God created the universe in an instant billions of years ago, rather than in a week merely several thousand years ago? The big bang theory is no less miraculous than the story of creation told in Genesis. If you consider how improbable it is that life began at all millions of years ago and that upright walking, rational, and emotional beings evolved after millions of years from that first single-celled organism, then it all seems miraculous. When I read about the big bang and evolution, I feel closer to God.

Finally, my real reason for talking about this subject is that my reaction to people whose primary concern is insisting in believing in the details of the biblical story of creation despite evidence to the contrary, is to be concerned that they are missing out on the wonderful experience of faith. Creeds don’t save us. Getting the theology right doesn’t save us. We are saved by entering into a loving relationship with our creator, regardless of how he went about creating us.